Public officials and business leaders put on a fullcourt press to save Bay State military bases

The nation is engaged in a tenuous campaign to rebuild and democratize Iraq. In Afghanistan, US soldiers continue to hunt for Al Qaeda terrorists. But back in Washington, the military is gearing up for another kind of battle. Less than a year from now, the Department of Defense will recommend to Congress that as many as 100 of the nation’s 425 military bases be eliminated.

The Defense Department says the base-closing initiative is necessary to transform the military from the powerful but plodding force that fought the Cold War into the nimble, high-tech army needed to destroy international terrorism. But Massachusetts, like many other states, has launched a campaign to convince the Pentagon that its military outposts should be preserved.

Four previous rounds of closings, in 1988, 1991, 1993, and 1995, shuttered 97 bases, with Congress giving its approval even as state delegations fought to preserve their own facilities. In Massachusetts, these closings included Fort Devens, northwest of Boston, and the South Weymouth Naval Air Station. Two Massachusetts facilities narrowly escaped closure and are now the focus of attention: Hanscom Air Force Base, in Bedford, and the US Army Soldier Systems Center, in Natick. In defending these two military sites, state leaders and representatives in Congress have found themselves with some surprising allies: the high-tech industry and the research universities.

The threat of these base closings is the “single most important economic development challenge currently facing the Commonwealth,” says Christopher Anderson, president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council, who, last February, took on a second job, heading the Massachusetts Defense Technology Initiative, a coalition of private and public-sector leaders fighting to preserve the bases. Hanscom and Natick pump $3.5 billion into the state economy each year and support about 30,000 jobs, he says. The two bases farm out millions of dollars in research and development work to local technology companies, as well as to the Bay State’s academic institutions.

To keep them open, the advocates will have to convince Pentagon officials that the unique missions of Natick and Hanscom merit their preservation. That could be a tough sell. The bases don’t house many soldiers or much hardware, and neither offers much room to grow, serious shortcomings in the minds of Pentagon evaluators. But both are crucial to the military’s efforts to develop technology, their defenders say.

“If they want our forces to be cutting-edge, if they are serious about that, these bases will be preserved,” says US Rep. John Tierney, whose district includes the Hanscom facility. Tierney says that the delegation has been working feverishly to make its argument to Pentagon decision-makers. In February, when the Defense Technology Initiative came together, US Sen. Edward Kennedy and Gov. Mitt Romney agreed to co-chair the group, with the remaining members of the state’s congressional delegation, including senator and soon-to-be Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, serving on the initiative’s leadership committee.

The pitch is simple. “Hanscom and Natick are making an outstanding contribution to our modern, high-tech military,” explains Kennedy in a written statement. “And that contribution depends heavily [on] the close proximity of these two bases to the [state’s] pre-eminent research and development community.”

After all, the Massachusetts military boosters say, these facilities are not your garden-variety army camps. Hanscom managed the development of the military’s airborne warning and control system, which coordinates the movement of fighter planes and bombers in battle, as well as the joint surveillance and target attack radar system, which provides information on targets on the ground. Natick, US Rep. Edward Markey explained last year in a letter to Michael Wynne, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, is the “epicenter in developing equipment, technology, and life-saving gear for the soldier of the future.” The base develops the military’s modern-day food rations and uses a climate-controlled chamber to develop clothing for soldiers facing every type of weather condition. Currently under development at Natick is “smart clothing” that will monitor the vital signs of soldiers on the battlefield.

Anderson says the initiative’s members are taking this message to Pentagon decision-makers wherever and whenever possible. Already this year, Romney and members of the congressional delegation have met separately with Ray DuBois, deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment. Kennedy has toured Hanscom with Wynne, while Anderson and congressmen Marty Meehan, Barney Frank, and Markey submitted comments on the Defense Department’s criteria for selecting bases to be closed, arguing that bases with a research focus near private sector and academic research centers should be preserved. Meehan also raised the issue with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld during a House Armed Services Committee hearing.

In Washington, the state has retained a group of well-connected lobbyists to transmit that message as well. These include former US senator Alan Dixon, an Illinois Democrat who chaired the 1995 base closing commission; former Air Force general Ronald Fogleman; former Kennedy defense aide Steven Wolfe; and Steven “Spike” Karalekas, an expert on the base-closing process and a onetime aide to former Massachusetts Republican congressman Paul Cronin. Back home, the initiative’s leadership committee includes two former generals who now reside in Massachusetts, Sheila Widnall and Jimmy Dishner; numerous corporate leaders; Jack Wilson, the newly installed president of the University of Massachusetts; and Kevin Casey, top lobbyist for Harvard University. In March, the state Legislature appropriated $500,000 to support the cause, and Anderson says he hopes to raise about $3 million from private and public sources.

TROOP STRENGTH

Not every state has lost military personnel in the four previous rounds of base closings in 1988, 1991, 1993, and 1995. Indeed, some states have gained personnel, as the Pentagon realigned its forces. Massachusetts is among those states that have lost personnel, though other states have fared worse.
JOB LOSSES JOB GAINS
1. California 93,456 1. Washington 17,865
2. Pennsylvania 16,008 2. North Carolina 7,831
3. Florida 11,758 3. Oklahoma 4,787
4. New York 9,196 4. New Mexico 3,307
5. Indiana 8,508 5. Georgia 2,861
6. Tennessee 7,814 6. Utah 2,406
7. Colorado 7,312 7. Idaho 2,075
8. Arkansas 7,051 8. Hawaii 1,792
9. New Jersey 6,750 9. Maryland 1,662
10. Alabama 5,918 10. Mississippi 1,592
18. Massachusetts 3,408
Source: Northeast-Midwest Institute

To save Hanscom and Natick from extinction will take more than a show of muscle, however. The Pentagon will have to change the way it sizes up the merits of existing facilities. In past base-closing exercises, the Pentagon has grouped research facilities such as Hanscom alongside bases like Andrews Air Force Base, in Prince George’s County, Md., which garrisons hundreds of planes and thousands of troops. Early on, Massachusetts boosters lobbied for new criteria that would recognize the importance of bases that focus on technology. The Bay State also joined forces with other regions that host research facilities, such as San Diego, Calif., home to the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command.

Despite these efforts, the criteria released in February were nearly identical to those of previous base-closing rounds. The Pentagon did, however, commit to setting up an evaluation team to appraise the military’s technical facilities. Now, Anderson says, the Massachusetts delegation is leaning on the Pentagon to release the more-detailed sub-criteria it will use to make its base-closing decisions. In past rounds, those sub-criteria were not released until after the process was complete, but this time the Pentagon’s DuBois has pledged to release them earlier.

“If we get to the end of this process and find out technical facilities were not evaluated in an appropriate way, then the whole process will have been a sham,” Anderson says.

Even if the Pentagon gives more credit to research facilities, Massachusetts may still have a problem. During the 1995 base-closing round, the military considered a plan to consolidate its technical sites into one “super” facility. Anderson argues that by adopting that plan, the Pentagon would weaken its ability to tap into the various technology hubs around the country. “You have to be in proximity. The best minds have to be in the same room,” he says. Still, consolidating multiple sites that currently serve only one branch of the services into a single facility is a major theme of the Pentagon-released criteria—and a major danger for Massachusetts’s small outposts.

And finally, there is the politics. When the base-closing procedure was designed in the late 1980s, Congress recognized that in order to successfully close any bases it would have to insulate the process from politics. The system now in place has Defense Department analysts make initial recommendations, a bipartisan commission appointed by the president review those recommendations, and Congress vote the final recommendations up or down, but not amend them.

To some degree, it’s worked. But David Sorenson, a professor at the Air War College, in Alabama, and author of a book on base closings, says politics always plays some role. Sorenson points out that prominent military critics such as former Democratic representatives Ronald Dellums of California and Patricia Schroeder of Colorado both lost major bases in previous base-closing rounds, whereas military advocates such as former Georgia Democratic senator Sam Nunn lost none.

That may bode ill for Massachusetts, he says. “Clearly, Sen. Kennedy has been a thorn in the side of the military since he has been in office,” says Sorenson.

Still, Sorenson says that the military has taken steps to tighten controls on this round to keep politics out of the process. For example, this year, a cross-service working group will make base-closing recommendations, whereas in the past each service made its own recommendations. Similarly, a super-majority of seven of the nine base-closing commissioners will have to agree on any bases to be recommended for closure. In the past, a simple majority was enough. And Sorenson says Massachusetts makes a strong case that Hanscom and Natick are unique facilities that will be difficult to duplicate elsewhere.

Meet the Author

Shawn Zeller

Washington Correspondent
Of course, one big wild card remains: the presidential election. Last March, John Kerry criticized the Bush administration’s handling of the base-closing process, telling the Portsmouth (NH) Herald that the plans should be put on hold.

“We need to conduct a long-range review of the nation’s military force structure needs that is honest about the challenges we face,” he said, adding that the current process “is driven more by ideology than by careful planning.” Anderson doesn’t come out and say it, but a Kerry victory in November would likely go a long way toward saving Hanscom and Natick.